If one disagrees with friends on one thing, is that sufficient to break the friendship? In essence that is what the Primates of the Anglican Communion were discussing this week in Canterbury. To some outside my Church the answer seems to have been ‘yes’, because the issue here was homosexuality. This seems to me, as, fortunately, it did to my bishops, an overreaction.
I have seen the words of St Bernadine of Sienna quoted in part, so I looked them up and found a fuller account here:
“No sin in the world grips the soul as the accursed sodomy; this sin has always been detested by all those who live according to God.… Deviant passion is close to madness; this vice disturbs the intellect, destroys elevation and generosity of soul, brings the mind down from great thoughts to the lowliest, makes the person slothful, irascible, obstinate and obdurate, servile and soft and incapable of anything; furthermore, agitated by an insatiable craving for pleasure, the person follows not reason but frenzy.… They become blind and, when their thoughts should soar to high and great things, they are broken down and reduced to vile and useless and putrid things, which could never make them happy…. Just as people participate in the glory of God in different degrees, so also in hell some suffer more than others. He who lived with this vice of sodomy suffers more than another, for this is the greatest sin
I have gay friends, they are not ‘close to madness’, their intellects are undisturbed (indeed one is a professor at one of the best universities in the world), and I have not noticed that they are any less generous than others, or that their souls are more stunted; neither has it made them slothful, irascible, servile or any of the rest of the saint’s prejudiced nonsense. Unlike St Bernardine, most of those I know are not obsessed with pleasure, they feel they were born the way they are, and they get on with their lives. St Bernardine is welcome to his view, not uncommon in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, but just as we no longer take so many of the attitudes of that era as gospel (burning people at the stake, anyone?), neither too should be allow ourselves to be guided by them on this issue. That quotation is, to anyone with gay friends, shockingly offensive, and worse, it is a mass of prejudices which simply do not stand up to examination. Might one find gay people who match that description? No doubt, just as one might find heterosexual people who do? So what?
I have the horrid sense here I get when I see Professor Dawkins debating fundamentalists – two sets of closed minds beating each other with their prejudices. It is certainly the case that militant homosexual lobbies insist that what matters most is their sexuality, and to be honest, if my sexual preferences had been the subject of the sort of persecution and insults theirs have, I, too, might feel militant. Their equivalent on the Christian side are those who insist that ‘sodomy’ is the greatest sin. Jesus says nothing about it, and St Paul, who certainly does, numbers it among a number of sexual sins. It is the prejudice of past ages which elevated sodomy to the status some still want it to have, and their insistence brings forth from their opponents a similar heightened rhetoric. I suppose that since lesbianism is not sodomy, women ought to be left out of this, but they got included all the same. The language used by some is directed as much at the sinner as the sin, and Archbishop Justin was wise and compassionate to apologise for it. Extremist language and attitudes spawn the same on the other side, and so we go into the abyss. It seems significant that Archbishop Justin is being attached for bigotry by those who reject Church teaching, and as abandoning it by those who want to make the issue one on which to end communion. When those prone to extreme positions and language find only the love of God, they do have a tendency to react crossly; they might ask themselves whether they are really quite as right and the others as wrong, as they assume in their self-imposed rigidity?
Those who genuinely feel that this issue is so vital that they cannot stay in Communion with those who disagree with them need, I am afraid, to explain why, to them, this one issue is so important that it overcomes the ninety nine other issues on which they agree? The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of those shouting bigotry and yet who use its language about those who disagree with them.
Let me be clear as I end. My Church has stated unequivocally that it has no power to approve of same sex marriages, it acknowledges what I acknowledge, that this runs against the word of Scripture and tradition. It goes further and reminds the Episcopalians that they are sinned against good fellowship by going their own way on this. Having done this, it then does a remarkable thing, it affirms the bonds of Communion remain, and that is because:
We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.
And they do so because:
It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.
To some, this will appear only as an attempt to hold together what cannot be held. To me, and to many Anglicans, it a Spirit-filled statement of a determination not to allow those, on both sides of the debate, obsessed with this subject, to prevent us bringing the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Risen Saviour, to a world which needs him as much as, if not more than, ever,